Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Oculus Rift for Kids? VR is Coming, What Do Parents Need to Know?

I recently had the opportunity to try out an Oculus Rift VR headset and so did my son. Although the Oculus Rift will only be recommended for age 13+ in its initial product release, it's very clear to me now that virtual reality is also going to be big with younger children in the long term.

A lot of the focus on VR has been on first person shooters, there also been a smaller discussion around education uses. After trying out the device I can really see the potential for immersive movies and games and experiences for children. Kids are going to love VR. I really hope the industry focuses on researching safety issues and addressing any that arise for younger children because once this tech makes it into homes it's going to be really hard to keep kids away from it.

I'm going to concentrate on the Oculus Rift in this article as that's the headset that we have tried, but the issues are similar for other devices.

What is the Oculus Rift?

The Oculus Rift is a VR headset with small screens inside it. When you wear it your eyes interpret the images on the screens as a 3D scene. You can move your head and the images will adapt. It's fully immersive - you don't see the room you are in. 

The headset is used with a computer - it doesn't do the processing itself. You need a high-end computer to make use of it. 

There will be games controllers and other input devices that allow interaction with VR environments.

The Oculus Rift can be used in a seated position or standing. Treadmills that allow real movement are also being developed for use with VR headsets. 

Oculus Rift Age Recommendation

“We put a warning on right when you put it on and the age of 13 was something that made a lot of sense when we became a part of Facebook, their age is 13 as well. And so we just felt ‘let’s start at 13, let’s evolve the technology more, let’s build more confidence, in the health and safety side of it. And eventually, one day, we definitely want to have Oculus for kids, especially for all the educational use of this.” - Brendan Iribe, Oculus Rift CEO (source)

Initially the headsets will be labelled as as 13+. This is partly due to the ownership of Oculus Rift by Facebook which is 13+ and partly due to being careful around safety issues. But it is very clear that children are an important target market for the future.

Should I have allowed my 8 year old son to try out an Oculus Rift? 8 was the lower age limit at the demo we attended. The last time I had researched the topic I noted that 7 was the lower age limit (similar to the 3D feature on a Nintendo 3DS changes that are still occurring in very young children's eyes.) There's a big difference between a short demo and having a product at home for regular use. I was happy with him trying out the experience for a couple of minutes with an age-appropriate demo.

Kids's Review

I should first point out that my 8 year old isn't a fan of roller coasters or thrill experiences at theme parks. A lot what we had heard about Oculus Rift was around that kind of content. When he saw the demo available for younger children, Birdy Kind Land, he decided to give it a go. And he loved it! I was watching and he was really moving around (well his head at least, he was sat in a chair) and responding as if what he was seeing was real. It was definitely a real wow experience. 

The headset was physically large for him (and me for that matter!) so I expect we'll see a smaller child-specific headset in future. 

Parent's Review

I get migraines that are triggered by flashing lights and some visual effects so I was a little cautious. I didn't experience any problems at all (though obviously this was just one demo.) 

I was really blown away by my experience with the Oculus Rift. It's really nothing like 3D effects at the cinema, the 3D part is completely effective. I could feel myself grinning as I participated in scenes from the Divergent movie series. The demo was non-interactive but directly involves and addresses you as the participant. I was very aware that it was a computer simulation due to the graphics (it's not the Holodeck!) but it was very effective. The ability to look around was somewhat limited by being seated in a chair but I could see where it's headed. 

I love computer games and theme park rides, but I'm most intrigued by the other possibilities of virtual reality such as virtual tourism,  long-distance family meet-ups, movies and education and training. 

Oculus Rift Potential for Kids

I can definitely see the educational potential for children. Kids will be able to access experiences that they wouldn't be able to in real-life such as going on Safari or visiting a space station. Although cost will be a barrier initially, eventually I can see VR being a technology that can close the experience gap between kids from different financial backgrounds. 

The real potential of virtual reality comes when you aren't stuck in a chair but can move around. This obviously adds lots of physical safety issues which need to be addressed and are likely to be more of an issue for kids. But supposing we get past this, virtual reality looks like a great way of getting tech-loving kids up and moving around. Hopefully VR will be a way to increase kids activity while they play or explore in virtual environments. 

There's a real move towards kids video games that permit free-form creative play rather than structured levels. VR has real potential in this area, imagine being able to play with a life-size farm set or train track.

I know, virtual reality has been just around the corner for years, but the current wave of tech is going to make virtual reality, well um, real. I'm sure our kids will look back with retro fondness on the VR tech that's going to appear in the next few years, but right now it seems pretty amazing.

VR Risks for Children

The potential risks around VR are:

  1. Eye safety would be my top concern.  I haven't seen any strong evidence that this is a genuine concern. I know that I have some irrational concerns, probably based around being told not to sit too close to the TV screen as a child. We need solid science and professional recommendations. 
  2. Motion sickness was a big concern with early devices but has improved. Of course children man react differently so we do need to know if there are any issues here. Parents will need to know what to look out for. 
  3. Once a VR user moves out of the seat there's the issue of bumping into physical hazards. Remember when everyone was throwing their Wii controllers across the room and breaking things! Will families have padded games rooms in future? To some extent this is just common sense and planning but children are likely to need close supervision. 
  4. Addiction and withdrawal from the real world is a genuine concern given the immersive experience. But just as with tablets, families will be able to have social experiences in VR (once they can afford multiple headsets!) I don't think this is something that should slow down the adoption of virtual reality. It is an area where parents will need awareness raising and guidance. 
  5. Having tried out an Oculus Rift I think the weight and fit of the device is another area that needs investigation. The headset is adjustable but it's obviously designed to fit large heads, that means that on a child it may be difficult to get a good fit. If a child is holding their head awkwardly to use the device then that's definitely an issue. The headset is quite light, but still quite a weight for a child. 

Safety and iRights

Putting a 13+ age restriction on the Oculus Rift initially seems like a reasonable approach. The effects of large scale use on adults can be observed while further research can be done on safety for children. 

But the other side of this is children's iRights to have access to relevant technology. The difficulty is that Oculus Rift know that children will want to use the device and it has widely been demoed to children at events and in schools (previous age recommendations have be 10 and 7.) It seems like the Facebook link is another strong driver for the age restriction. (And Facebook also need to address the needs of under 13s rather than just restricting the platform.) I think a lot of children will get access to the devices.

Waiting a couple of years for something isn't a such huge deal for adults. For kids, it's a big chunk of their life so far. 

The 13+ restriction is an understandable approach from a business perspective, but what parents really need is proper research and usage recommendations for VR technology for children. The safety issues need to be identified and addressed rather than avoided. 

If it does turn out that there are genuine issues for children then parents need to be made aware of these as many will see the 13+ age restriction in the same way as they view computer game and movie ratings and will make their own decisions. 

There's also the issue of balancing risks. If VR can be used to get children more active then there's clearly a trade-off if the health benefits associated with additional exercise are significant.

What Next?

VR is a big deal and it's going to keep developing rapidly. Adults will want the technology and it will filter down to children. We'll be keeping an eye on research on the effects of VR on children and looking forward to full VR headsets that can safely be recommended to children. 

We'll also be looking at other VR-related technologies that are recommended for children. 

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